Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Review

I’m copying a fellow Moscow blogger (thanks, Polly!) and looking back on what I’ve been up to in 2013. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version, with links to some of the highlights:

Last January, I was living in Basque Country, teaching English, and toiling away as a writer. Midway through the month, I discovered that I was a Fulbright finalist. The main thing standing in my way was a phone interview in Russian, which led to my attempt to become conversational in Russian in a month.  I guess it worked?  The cultural highlight of the month, however, was Tamborrada, that crazy 24-hour San Sebastián drumming festival.

Plaza de la Constitución in San Sebsatián

In February, I celebrated Carneval in Venice and saw the Pope in Rome. The Harlem Shake made it to Spain.  It even snowed in San Sebastián.

Free gondola rides with Toti

In March, I was bombarded with visitors, and took one of them to a Basque cider house. I did very little writing, but did manage to finish a draft of an abysmal screenplay I haven’t looked at since (ugh).  I also made a pilgrimage to Santiago, which was where I lived for my first year in Spain.

The Cider House posse

In April, I finished up my two-week roadtrip through Northern Spain with Rose and Lindsay.  I found out I was moving to Moscow. And my mom proved she has a sense of humor about her aggressive Tiger Mom-ing:

In May, I taught my last English class, had another rash of visitors, and prepared to say goodbye to Spain for the foreseeable future.  There were a lot of emo walks and a lot of pintxos.

Last sunset in San Sebastián

In June, I returned to the United States and declared myself America’s #1 fan.  I went to my first bachelorette party of the summer, started intensive Russian classes, started working full time, and saw my family for the first time in months.

Cousin, little sister, me, mom, and aunt in Seattle

In July, I realized I’d taken on way too much.  I swam in a lot of lakes. I kicked myself for choosing Russia over any number of Fulbright countries where I can speak the language. 

Eastern Washington is weird

In August, I attended another wedding, revisited the Bay Area, and went to my high school reunion. I finished up my summer job and my Russian classes, and was granted a visa to Russia.  Equal parts panicked/excited about my return to Moscow.

My sisters, Chelsea, and me in Bellingham in August

In September, I moved to Russia. The usual amount of culture shock ensued.  It rained a lot.  Russian was still more or less impossible.  Moscow was still more expensive than New York or London.  And I still loved it.

Lots of rain.  Lots of Stalinist architecture.

In October, I celebrated my birthday. I went to the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow Circus.  I complained about how hot Moscow was (it really was).

Birthdays call for birthday cake with names I can’t pronounce

In November, I decided to write a novel. That didn’t happen. It did, however, provide the impetus to start a novel. Olga got real crazy. It started snowing and I stopped complaining about the heat.

November was winter coat-buying month

December called for another Christmas abroad with my older sister, this time with the addition of two college friends. It was my best Christmas away from home yet.

Ben, me, and Fareed on Xmas Eve

And now the year is wrapping up.  I’ve gone from Spain to America to Russia, and even I can’t begin to predict where I’ll be in a year or what will happen between now and then. Here’s to whatever 2014 has in store for me.  Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hungarian Adventure

Our week in Budapest has flown by, but here are some of the highlights (in photo form). On Christmas Day, we wandered over to Budapest’s version of Central Park for some skating in front of a castle. Ben had never ice skated before, but he was a good sport, and we all managed to take a few spins around the rink without damaging any vital organs.

The skating rink in front of Vajdahunyad Castle
That evening, we headed to the Hungarian State Opera to see La Bohème, despite everyone’s worries that our massive Hungarian dinner and our glasses of mulled wine would send us straight to dreamland. Melissa and Fareed called it a day after about half an hour, at which point they ignored the judgmental looks of the coat check lady and headed straight to a ruin bar. Ben and I stayed until the end, reveling in our cultural superiority.

Hungarian Christmas dinner

Feeling classy at the Hungarian State Opera

On Thursday, we went on a walking tour of Budapest, crossing over the Danube and taking in a view of the city from the Buda side. While Ben and Fareed initially made fun of Melissa and me for walking at the front near the guide, they were the nerds busting out correct answers every time the guide asked a question about Hungarian history.

The Chain Bridge and the Danube at dusk
Our next stop on Thursday was Escape Maze, where we partook in a game that tested our logic and intelligence.  But when Melissa signed us up for this, she was unaware of our combined inability to even open a door. For example, within five minutes of getting settled into our flat, Ben had managed to lock himself in the bathroom, and Fareed was so puzzled by our apartment keys that we inadvertently slept with our door unlocked the first night.  They also insist that one set of keys doesn’t work, which has led to them “Spider Manning” their way over the gate to our building on two separate occasions. We probably should have thought about this before being locked into a labyrinth; after sixty minutes, we were still trapped in a basement with a dead German soldier, a wall of clocks, a TV screen, and a heavily padlocked door. The owner came down to rescue us, then asked us in bewilderment, “But you have all the keys and combinations, so why couldn’t you get out?” A very good question.

The only visitors to get all the keys but not make it out

Friday found us at the Szechenyi Baths, a bathhouse experience I might like even better than the Russian banya experience.  The complex is huge, and I managed to get in a 45-minute swim, a one-hour massage, and so much sauna time that I nearly passed out in my catfish paprikash at dinner.  On Saturday, we hit up the Central Market and took a walking tour of the Jewish District.  Feeling rather embarrassed about my early Friday night bedtime, I decided I needed to bring back my college self for Ben and Fareed’s benefit.  This led to far too many palinka shots and a tour of Budapest’s weirdest bars, but I still couldn’t keep up with the boys and left an hour before they did.  However, my inability to navigate anywhere meant that I arrived home roughly 15 minutes before them.  Melissa had been woken by a neighbor pounding on the door at 4am, so she was wide awake, prepared to defend herself with a frying pan if it came down to it, and very relieved to see us when we returned.  We recapped the night for her over wasabi chips and embarrassing stories before collapsing into bed at 6am.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t get an early start on Sunday, but still managed to rally for a third and final walking tour, this one with a Communist theme.  Today is our last day in Hungary and I’m terribly sad to be leaving, but it’s been a wonderful Christmas week.  For the grand finale of my trip, I plan on staying up until my 4am cab ride to the airport so I can take advantage of my last evening with Ben and Fareed.  Hopefully it won’t be another 6.5 years before our next reunion.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cabbage

This is my third Christmas in a row abroad, and it is never anything like Christmas in America. My first Christmas abroad was in Scotland, with fellow Washingonians Matt and Chelsea, and then I spent last Christmas with my sister in Morocco. This year, I am in Hungary with two college friends and my older sister. I landed in Budapest this afternoon and was promptly greeted by Fareed, whom I hadn’t seen in 6.5 years and who had flown in from Pakistan for the occasion. Much squealing transpired, and then I immediately insisted on taking a photo so I could prove to everyone back home that he was not just a figment of our imagination.  An hour later, we were joined by Ben, who was coming in from New York. Once our Jewish/Muslim/pseudo Catholic trifecta was in place, we cabbed it to Budapest’s 7th District to check in at our Airbnb flat and get situated.

Note that Fareed packed three times as much as I did for one week in Budapest

Reunited in Hungary, for no real reason
We quickly discovered that Budapest is completely dead on Christmas Eve. Plans to go out to dinner were soon dashed, and finding a grocery store proved to be equally challenging. After much wandering, and a consultation with the most attractive couple in Hungary, we located a tiny convenience store, which certainly didn’t contain the fixings of a quality Christmas dinner. After much agonizing, Fareed grabbed a sausage that may have been raw, I picked up a cabbage and a can of tomato paste (with the help of a friendly, English-speaking Hungarian man who translated all the canned goods for me), and we made up the difference with a generous selection of wasabi and chili lime potato chips. 

Back at the flat, we downed a bottle of wine and I started preparing our Christmas cabbage feast. I was attempting to imitate a Belorussian dish I get around the corner from the Kremlin every few weeks, but mostly succeeded in infusing the apartment with the smell of boiled cabbage and frozen carrots. Melissa arrived at 8pm, just in time for Christmas cabbage, chocolate, dessert wine, and my last minute attempt at Christmas gift giving. It wasn’t exactly your traditional Christmas Eve, but I suspect it will not be one I forget anytime soon.

Christmas cabbage, a meal that will probably not be gracing American tables for the holiday season

My last minute Russian gifts for Ben, Fareed, and Melissa

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gypsy Cabs, Tramps, and Thieves

I usually travel by metro, but when I need to get somewhere between the hours of 1am and 6am when the metro isn’t running, I often resort to gypsy cabs. A gypsy cab, or a bombila in Russian, basically boils down to a dude with a car who wants some extra cash. If you step off of any Moscow curb and raise your hand, you will immediately find a line of cars ready to take you wherever you need to go. I swore off gypsy cabs a few months ago, reasoning that I would never do that in America, and even managed to blunder through ordering a few licensed taxis by telephone in the interim. Unfortunately, my gypsy cab habit is proving harder to kick than I realized. 

I went out with a group of friends last night, and around 5am we decided to call it a night and go our separate ways. Even though one of the girls and I were going in completely different directions, we climbed into a taxi together and explained to the driver we’d be making two stops. When he tried to jack up the price we’d agreed upon, I became incensed and demanded he turn on the meter. After much back and forth, I told him that if he didn’t turn it on, I would get out and walk home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t moved by my threats, and did in fact pull over. Not wanting to admit that I had been bluffing about my eagerness to walk two miles in the snow, I grabbed my purse and my misplaced principles and stormed off.

Before I had even raised my hand, two Russians had pulled over, sensing a potential gypsy fare. The first, a middle-aged man with a mullet, was willing to take me home for less than half of what the taxi driver was trying to charge me, so I climbed in, feeling optimistic that he wasn’t the next Chessboard Killer. Yura proved to be quite amiable, but our conversation was hampered by my inability to understand the word “wind,” which was apparently crucial to his story.

Me: What are you talking about?
Yura: Weather.  It’s weather!
Me: You want to know what the weather is like?  It’s cold.
Yura: No, I’m trying to help you understand the word I am saying.
Me: I don’t know what’s happening!
Yura: What do they have in Louisiana?
Me: Hurricanes?
Yura: Yes.  Hurricanes are kind of like wind.
Me: Why are we talking about hurricanes?!
Yura: We aren’t!

I never did figure out what he was trying to tell me because at that point I realized I only had thousand rouble notes in my wallet, and not having proper change is the surest way to get ripped off by a gypsy cab driver. I interrupted Yura, who was spiritedly trying to pantomime his point across, and explained my predicament.

Yura: I only have 500 in change.
Me: I’m not paying you 500 roubles.  I just told someone I would walk home because they tried to make me pay 500 roubles. 
Yura: Is there a store near your flat?
Me: Uh…
Yura: A store. A STORE!
Me: I was thinking! There’s a café.

Five minutes later, we pulled up to my building and I went into the Shokoladnitsa to get change, which involved a very roundabout explanation on my part. I ran back to Yura, handed over the agreed upon 200 roubles, and thanked him profusely. He bid me adieu, but not before giving me a quick Russian language lesson.

“You keep saying you can ‘transform money,’ but that’s the wrong verb. You want to say ‘change.’”

Wonderful.  I sound foolish enough in this country, and I very nearly added delusions of wizardry into the mix. Thank god Yura corrected me—that mullet-loving bastard just re-instilled my faith in the entire gypsy cab institution.  I’m sure this will end well, and not with my severed head being found in a park when the snow melts in July.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Visit to the Russian Gynecologist

Until today, my contact with Russian gynecology was limited to an ob-gyn I met at 3am outside of a club during my first week in Moscow. His name was Evgeniy, and to prove that he was a real doctor, he asked me about my most recent menstrual cycle. I wish I could say I ended the conversation there, but unfortunately I plowed ahead in halting Russian, with poor Molly being forced to fill in the gaps when my vocabulary was lacking. We never did figure out if he was a legit practitioner of the gynecological arts, but rest assured I did not contact him when I decided to see an ob-gyn this week.

A gynecological exam is already rife with opportunities for awkwardness, and that’s before you factor in a language barrier. Take my first visit to the ginecólogo in Spain, for example. After being asked if I had “relations,” I started listing all my immediate family members. I’d gotten no further than my sisters before I realized I was answering an entirely different question.

“You mean sexual relations, don’t you?” I asked, turning red. The doctor nodded wordlessly, obviously fighting laughter.

Unfortunately, the embarrassment didn’t end there. A year later, after failing to specify I wanted a female doctor, I found myself in a backless gown with a Basque dude looking down the business end of my birthing canal. My Spanish had improved significantly since my previous visit, but I still found myself conflicted as to whether I should use the formal or informal manner of address. Once someone’s given you a pelvic exam, you’d be hard-pressed to get any more familiar than that.

Bearing in mind my Spanish visits to the ob-gyn, I knew that this was going to have to be done in English. I made an appointment at the European Medical Center, not surprised that I would be seen by a doctor named Olga. It seems that Soviet parents of the 80s were just as uninspired as their “Jessica”-happy American counterparts.

Olga’s English was flawed, but far superior to my Russian. She quickly dispelled the concerns that had brought me into her office in the first place, reminding me that no good can come of WebMD self-diagnoses. Then she got down to business, giving me a guided tour of my reproductive system by way of ultrasound.

“I have made the zoom, so don’t be concerned. I promise your uterus is not too big.”

Even if I had any idea what the size of a normal uterus was, I doubt it would be high on my list of body image issues. I didn’t bother explaining that to Olga though, and let her finish the “control.” By the end of the exam, she declared me to be in perfect health.

“You have a very happy and healthy uterus!” Thanks, O. We get that a lot.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting Cultured

I’ve now been in Moscow for three months, which means I only have six months left before my grant ends. I am already suffering from separation anxiety and entertaining the idea of trying to stay longer, proving I am crazier than anyone originally thought.  Until I am ripped from Mother Russia’s chilly embrace, I’m trying to take advantage of all the Russian culture on offer here in my beloved Moscow.

At the invitation of a Russian friend, I recently went to the Pushkin Theatre to see Much Ado About Nothing. While the Bard might seem about as far as one could get from Slavic culture, it proved to be a wealth of insight into the Russian psyche. Only in a Russian rendition of Shakespeare would the hero deliver a soliloquy in his briefs, the soldiers carry machine guns, and a masquerade ball bear all the hallmarks of a Halloween frat party (slutty nurse included). Even though I had read the play that morning, I still didn’t have any idea what was going on, and I doubt the Russian-speakers did either. That said, it was wildly entertaining and I think I would have enjoyed Shakespeare a lot more in high school had there been less iambic pentameter and more Russian testosterone.

Not quite 17th century England, but close enough

Though not a new cultural discovery, I also paid a visit to the Russian banya.  Something is lost in translation because “bathhouse” does not do justice to the life-changing wonders of the Russian sauna experience. You get naked, sit in a sauna until you sweat profusely, then plunge into ice-cold water...over and over again.  Throw in some good friends to beat you with a bundle of birch branches (it’s good for your circulation) and the banya is the closest thing to heaven you’ll find in Russia.  My 21-year-old self was wary of an activity that essentially boiled down to group nudity and sadomasochism, but I soon realized that of the many things to fear in Russia, this was not one of them.

Why hasn’t America embraced this amazing ritual?

On Monday evening, I dragged Molly along with me for some rest, relaxation, and a preview of what our bodies are going to look like in a few decades. She was a banya virgin, but this was not the first time I had initiated a friend into the mysteries of the bathhouse.  After two hours of shocking my body with extreme temperatures, I emerged into the snowy streets of Moscow feeling like I had just been reborn. Molly, however, was less moved by the experience and wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to be my new banya buddy. This means that until Christine comes to visit, I need to find someone else to take a birch switch to my backside. I know all of my readers are dying to volunteer, but please don’t all disrobe at once.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dom Sweet Dom

Despite my laissez-faire approach to apartment hunting, I am finally free of Olga and Markus. Fate intervened and dropped a perfect housing situation into my lap, so I am now happily domiciled with a fellow Stanford grad and her Russian boyfriend. I am terrible at goodbyes, particularly in another language, and bidding “good riddance” to Olga went just as awkwardly as expected. She asked how much my rent would be at the new place and offered to charge me less, told me I’d be uncomfortable living with a couple, and assured me my room would be waiting if things went badly at my new place. She ended on the ominous note, “Лучшее — всегда враг хорошего.”

Me: Better. Always.  Enemy.  Of good?
Olga: Of course.
Me: I don’t understand.
Olga: Лучшее. Всегда. Враг—
Me: I know the words, but what does that mean?!

Though I finally figured out she was telling me “the grass is always greener on the other side,” I feigned confusion and ran away. It seemed more polite than telling her that she was the weirdest roommate I’ve ever had, and that includes a Basque guy who told me I wasn’t allowed to use the shower and a guy who played World of Warcraft 25 hours a day.

Although I have been in my new place for less than a week, it has already been a vast improvement on Chez Olga. Liz welcomed me with chocolate and wine, and her cat made a pet lover out of me in about a day. It turns out animals are good for something other than fur coats and food, and I am disturbed by the number of one-sided conversations I have had with Belka this week.

Belka in a bag (she climbed in herself, I was not trying to suffocate her)
The only negative I could find about my new place was that my room is always colder than the rest of the flat. Then last night I realized my window had been open for five days straight in subzero temperatures. It’s a wonder I’ve survived in Russia, much less life, this long.